Russia has sent 120 missiles to Turkey for its S-400 system, according to Russian media and a military source. “Turkey has received two S-400 battalions, more than 120 surface-to-air missiles, as well as auxiliary equipment,” the source said, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
Russia and Turkey signed a deal in 2017 for Russia to provide its advanced air defense system, a major blow to US-Turkish relations. Turkey had wanted the US Patriot system and is expected to buy Western air defense systems from NATO countries, not go shopping in Moscow. But a variety of issues led to an emerging Russia-Turkish alliance, linked to Astana peace talks for Syria and also Turkish claims that the US supports “terrorists” in Syria. Since 2017, the two countries have discussed other military deals as well, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan and Putin have carved out a new regional order in the Middle East, agreeing on a ceasefire in Idlib in September 2018 and a ceasefire in northern Syria’s Kurdish region in October 2019, after the US abandoned its mostly Kurdish partners in part of Syria and enabled a Turkish offensive.
Russia and Turkey are now working on a deal in Libya. While the US retreated and 200,000 Kurds were driven from their homes in parts of Syria, Moscow and Ankara were able to work together. The S-400 deal was key to this relationship, because although the two countries are on opposite sides of some conflicts, defense deals and energy contracts for a TurkStream pipeline drive relations more than ideology.
The TASS report reveals the speed with which missiles are flowing to Ankara from Moscow. After what seemed like slow progress in 2018, the S-400s finally arrived in the summer of 2019, causing the US to threaten to end Turkey’s role in the F-35 program. The Washington and Ankara are not studying that role, and Turkey is still building parts for the F-35. Nevertheless, it appears that Ankara’s role will be wrapped up, and the F-35 deals for Turkey will be permanently embalmed.
TO GIVE Turkey a win, Moscow seems to have rushed the missiles to Ankara – not only so that Turkey could practice with the S-400s, but also so that they can be declared operational by April. Moscow had provided S-300s to Syria after a Syrian S-200 shot down a Russian plane by mistake in September 2018, but those systems have mostly remained out of sight. This shows that when Moscow wants to move and do things, it can, and when it wants to slow down aid defense delivery, it can do that also.
The TASS report says that technology transfer is now part of the deal. There have been persistent question about ‘friend and foe’ identification in the S-400s for Turkey, specifically related to NATO. Turkey is a NATO member, but the S-400 is a Russian technology. Reports at Al-Monitor and The Drive in December claimed that there were changes to the S-400 technology for Turkey, but there are fears that it could leak the technology. The friend-or-foe technology relating to NATO jets is important and relates to Turkish use of Western airplanes such as the F-16 and its allies' use of F-15s and other European and American warplanes.
The question is, even if Russia did enable modification of cryptological systems, as reports suggest, how will the S-400 view Russian planes and those of the Syrian regime and the US flying in Syria? For Moscow, this matters because it would be embarrassing for Russian bombers targeting Turkish-backed militants in Idlib to be shot down by Russia’s own defense system. It would also be embarrassing for the US to find its planes tracked by Turkish S-400 radar in Syria, a kind of threat that could emerge.
Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 in 2015. In addition, the Syrian regime's shooting down of a Russian plane and Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian Airliner all illustrate how important it is for air defense technology to be keyed in to whose planes the technology identifies as a foe or threat.
The Russian reporting indicates that Turkey signed a delivery document in December 2019, which started a 20-month warranty for the S-400. One would think such a key system would come with a longer warranty. Turkey still claims an April or May target for operationalizing the system, according to Turkey’s Defense Ministry.
The contract is worth $2.5 billion. When it is operational, it will change the strategic balance in the Middle East and will also lead Russia to pitch the same system increasingly around the region and the globe, part of a major push by Russian defense contractors. It may represent a new era of Turkish-Russian alliance to control parts of the Middle East.
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